The United States is trying to leave Afghanistan again, but it refuses to set a timetable for withdrawal because it is official U.S. strategy that “America’s enemies must never know they can wait [the U.S.] out.” The truth is they can and they will. Withholding a precise withdrawal date may be tactically prudent, but any Taliban (or Islamic State) fighter with an internet connection knows that the U.S. has no desire to continue spending $45 billion a year or sacrificing the blood of U.S. soldiers on what has become, and perhaps always was, a hopeless endeavor.
This isn’t the first time the U.S. has attempted to extricate itself from Afghanistan, but this time the players involved seem more serious. According to the Financial Times, U.S. officials have met with Taliban representatives at least twice in the past three months in Qatar. (Pakistan, which has incurred the ire of the U.S. after years of ineffective policing of Afghan insurgents residing within its own borders, is trying to claim some success for arranging the meeting – too little, too late from Washington’s perspective.) The Taliban leaked the most recent meeting, when a U.S. State Department official reportedly met with Taliban officials in Qatar on July 23. The U.S. has declined to comment on or confirm these meetings, but its intentions are no secret.
In the days since that meeting, still more changes in the U.S. posture toward Afghanistan have found their way into the press. U.S. officials told NBC News that President Donald Trump’s impatience with the war has pushed U.S. diplomats to grasp desperately for a face-saving compromise. Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials said Washington was urging Afghan troops to pull back from significant amounts of territory, falling back to cities and major population centers (a more difficult task than it sounds considering over 70 percent of Afghanistan is rural). The Trump administration, like the Barack Obama administration, is divided on Afghanistan. The military does not want to leave without victory, but the politicians see little chance of that. It’s not a coincidence that leaks on this issue have become prodigious.
All this comes just ahead of the anniversary on Aug. 21 of the Trump administration’s new strategy for winning the 17-year war. That strategy contained five main aspects: no timetable for withdrawal, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Afghan government, increased military pressure on the Taliban, a tougher stance toward Pakistan for harboring terrorist organizations, and a closer alignment of U.S. and Indian interests. The U.S. has done exactly what it said it would, but the plan was flawed from the start.
The logic behind refusing to set a withdrawal deadline is mostly to ensure that opponents don’t view the U.S. as weak. The problem, however, is that these actors already understand that the U.S. is unwilling to spend the massive amounts of resources that would be required to transform Afghanistan – and in this context, that’s as good as weakness. For instance, the United States slightly increased its troop deployments to Afghanistan in the past year to 15,000, but that is not nearly enough to really put pressure on the Taliban. American officials told various media outlets that this round of informal talks with the Taliban might be different because the Taliban are serious about peace. Meanwhile, on Sunday, a Taliban website called Voice of Jihad published an article in which it described recent developments as evidence of the United States’ “weakness and defeat.” The Taliban are not serious about peace so much as they think they have already won.
Of course, there are different levels of victory. The Taliban know they have more stamina for the conflict than the United States does, and the longer resolution takes, the stronger the Taliban become. But they are not simply going to take over the country. Afghanistan is not a place blessed with an overarching national identity. The same factors that defeated the U.S. cause plenty of headaches for the Taliban (and are the reason an ideology like radical Islam, which tries to bypass tribal and ethnic distinctions via divine deflection, catches on so effectively). The Taliban now govern significant parts of the country, but the Islamic State is active and growing too. The Afghan government in Kabul is not without resources and supporters of its own, to say nothing of the warlords and factions that other foreign powers are propping up because of their own interests in bogging the U.S. down and making sure that Afghanistan’s problems remain in Afghanistan.
There is no shortage of powers stirring the pot, and all are preparing for the eventual end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. On July 11, Pakistan hosted the heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to discuss counterterrorism cooperation in Afghanistan – specifically, how to contain radical Islam. These countries have every reason to be concerned. Iran does not want any Sunni radicals on its borders. Russia has a large Muslim population (roughly 12 percent, according to the latest Pew data) and is concerned about Afghanistan’s problems spilling over into the fragile Central Asian states. And Xinjiang, China’s restive Muslim region in the northwest, is just a stone’s throw from Afghanistan – not to mention that chaos is bad for Belt and Road business. This means it is unlikely that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will have the same effect as the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, where jihadists rapidly filled the vacuum. There are more players on the ground in Afghanistan, all of which want to prevent the country from becoming the host of IS 2.0.
Trump faces the same situation in Afghanistan that his predecessors faced in Iraq and Vietnam. He can no more bring the war in Afghanistan to a victorious conclusion than Obama could have prevented Iraq from descending into civil war or Richard Nixon could have prevented the North Vietnamese from prevailing. What Trump could still yet do is bring the war to an honest and stable conclusion: honest by not attempting to hide the defeat, and stable by working with other countries – even strategic competitors – to make sure that whatever happens in Afghanistan does not hurt the U.S. or its long-term interests. The U.S. could not win the war in Afghanistan because it could not make Afghanistan something that it isn’t. The only question that remains is whether the U.S. can see that, or whether it will indulge in self-denial and miss the lesson it has ignored for three wars and counting.